By Richard Gubbe
Charlie and Stephanie Rasmann were content to set aside their professional acting careers and start a family of their own, living a non-show business life in Roscoe for the fourth decade of their lives. Charlie was content in the family manufacturing business, Stephanie comfortable working for Savant Capital Management. They were in retirement mode from paid theater in Chicago, saying good-bye to a career they both loved to move back to a place they grew up.
They transitioned back to the real world in their leading roles in Starlight Theatre’s Young Frankenstein last summer at Rock Valley College. They were onstage again, this time in a rare show together. Charlie was Dr. Frankenstein, Stephanie his madcap fiancee.
That was it, they said. They were stepping back.
Then Director Mike Webb dangled the roles for a play with a Pulitzer Prize and 10 Tony nominations at them, roles they both deeply wanted to play.
“Once Mike announced he was going to do Saturday in the Park with George, we went back and forth whether we wanted to audition or we actually wanted to take some time off because this was a dream show,” Charlie said. “We both decided we would have regretted not going for it. It was the appeal of the show.”
The Rasmanns (pronounced Raceman) auditioned as if the show started the following week. The intricate show from Stephen Sondheim, who “re-invented the American musical” with complex and challenging themes, according to President Obama. Sondheim was honored recently with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Sunday in the Park is no picnic to undertake. But leave it to Webb not to back down from any challenge in his quest to direct all Sondheim works.
The play opens Wednesday for a two-week run in the quaint Studio Theatre at Rock Valley College, where 170 seats are only slightly less than the also-quaint storefront settings the Rasmanns got paid to perform in.
Although both graduated from Rockford University with degrees in performance, neither had performed in Studio shows. Webb has known Charlie “since he was a kid” and Charlie had taken roles in outdoor RVC shows before heading off the big city.
“We heard it was it was like storefront Chicago houses where we spent a lot of time in spaces we’ve grown to enjoy. Neither of us had done a studio show,” Stephanie said. She had parts in other Sondheim shows and she was familiar with the show already.
Both grew up on Rockford’s east side and met in college while majoring in musical theater.
“We were college sweethearts,” Stephanie says, and the couple moved to Florida for a brief time after graduation, then to Chicago where each drew a livable weekly salary or flat fee for a show for five years, although they supplemented their income, Stephanie in retail and Charlie selling insurance.
They were never in the same show with the exception of one cabaret, yet they would never live apart just to take a role in another city.
“I never want to leave him for a year to do that. It’s never as important to me as my relationship,” she said. “I had an inkling for New York while in college. I took six trips in three years and the last one it was smelly and busy and I hated it.”
Chicago people, they became. “There’s always a craft beer in our system,” Charlie says.
Charlie spent the first three years as a stage manager, hooking up with a union crew.
“People are always looking for stage managers. That turned into me managing my own shows. The work kept coming,” Charlie said. “And it pays more,” Stephanie added.
He missed acting too much and went back to his passion. He did a few musicals like Spamalot and The Full Monty, but his strengths are in acting and he had key roles in straight plays such as All My Sons, Take Me Out, and Hamlet twice in the Belmont theater district.
“If the material interested me, I would go out for it,” he said.
“We hit our stride in storefront theater,” Stephanie said. “I wasn’t auditioning for things unless I wanted to be in and if I wasn’t interested I didn’t want to waste our time.”
Then came discussion about a family.
“That’s when we decided to come back here. It was culture shock moving back here, but we adjusted quickly,” Charlie said. “We wanted to focus on being calm and then Sunday came up we would have been kicking ourselves.”
Charlie works full-time at his father’s company, Custom Gear and Machine, while also working on a second bachelors at NIU, this one in engineering. They knew each other five years before marrying in 2012. Each has their strengths; Stephanie’s is in music. Charlie can attest to her range and intensity.
“Singing in the car is a little much on my ears but I never get sick of hearing her sing,” he says.
“Memorizing music comes more easily to me,” she says. “I have been singing since I could talk but was so shy.”
She pushed herself into roles, then was thrust into a lead part in high school and no more stage fright. The key for acting for her is “to know what the intent is and thinking how your character is responding.”
Sunday in the Park is no picnic for the two leads.
“I’m never nervous for auditions but was actually nervous for this,” Stephanie said. “There is no easy song in George. My legs were actually shaking. Nerves are good; they mean you care.”
Charlie has the propensity to memorize large blocks of text and absorb his character. “This show is right up my alley – a lot of words. Take Me Out had three-page blocks. The characters are so real, getting into their minds and their motivations is difficult.”
Webb draws talent to RVC winter and summer shows for what Charlie describes as a “Labor of love for Mike. He does so much for the cast and community with the meals he pays for. It adds up to what a stipend might be.”
Webb nurtures many of his performers from an early age.
“I’ve known Charlie since he was a baby,” Webb says. “It’s wonderful that they’re back home and it’s good for the community. Their breadth of work is pretty impressive. They should be really proud.”
Sunday in the Park with George, from Sondheim and James Lapine, is a mix of music and straight theatre and uses a scrim screen to set the mood of the 1860s France in the impressionist era.
“To make it work in this space is epic,” Webb says.
The script is inspired by the Georges Seurat’s iconic pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Webb took the cast and crew to see his famed, enormous work at the Chicago Art Institute. The story turns a century later as a descendant of Seurat’s, also George, is searching for an artistic path of his own. The original play starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.
“I cared deeply for George before I knew this was an option and wanted to experience that,” Charlie says. “You need to be able to tell that story to somebody, he says. “Tell the story and make the words stick. If I’m not in it wholeheartedly, that is taking away from someone else’s experience. If it’s a role I deeply care about, I will go for it. We don’t have the need to audition for anything just to be on stage.”
Their next goal, so they say is no more until they increase in numbers and “do Starlight together as a family.”
The show runs through December 12. For tickets or information call 815-921-2160.